The ‘Homeland’ prisoner of war: After four years as a hostage, this soldier may at last be released… but America is asking, has he been ‘turned’ by the Taliban?
Pvt Bowe Berghdal, 27, has been held in Afghanistan since 2009
During his captivity he has been accused of deserting to the Taliban
In emails to his parents he has spoken of being ‘ashamed’ to be American
Called the US Army one of ‘liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies’
PUBLISHED: 22:00, 29 June 2013
America’s only prisoner-of-war may finally be coming home.
Four years after Private Bowe Bergdahl was seized from a dusty no-man’s-land in Afghanistan, his parents are this weekend negotiating directly with the Taliban for his release.
But for Bob and Jani Bergdahl, whose exhausting campaign for their son’s return is reflected in the now tattered yellow ribbons that are tied around their ranch in Hailey, Idaho, the most difficult battle may still be ahead.
Because Bowe, 27, who was captured after he disappeared in remote Patika province, now stands accused of being a deserter who has been ‘turned’ by the Taliban.
He has been likened to the fictional Sergeant Nicholas Brody in the television series Homeland, who converted to Islam and joined Al Qaeda while in captivity.
Rumours that he has gone rogue were prompted by Bowe’s criticism of the Army’s actions in Afghanistan.
In one email to his parents, Bowe spoke of being ‘ashamed’ of being American and criticised the Army’s ‘arrogance’ in Afghanistan.
The rumours have been a bitter blow to the Bergdahls who maintain their son is no traitor. ‘I’ll defend his character until the day I die,’ insists his father.
On the streets of his home town, Bob cuts a striking and forlorn figure. He stopped shaving to show solidarity with his son, whose four-year ‘anniversary’ is this weekend.
The long red beard is his way of supporting his ‘forgotten’ boy. He has even changed the clocks in his house to Afghan time and learned Pashto in his desperation to understand what Bowe is enduring.
He says: ‘I do not live here, I live in Afghanistan. I might be standing here but I am living vicariously through my son. A father does not leave his son alone. I will not leave Bowe on the battlefield. He is not forgotten.’
The extraordinary story of America’s sole prisoner-of-war is one of the least-known of the 12-year Afghan war. But it has been catapulted into the limelight after the Taliban opened its first ‘embassy’ in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and announced they were ready to exchange Bowe for five senior Al Qaeda leaders currently held at Guantanamo Bay.
Much mystery, however, surrounds Bowe’s disappearance. In the weeks before his capture, he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Army life and with the Allied ‘hearts and minds’ campaign being waged in Afghanistan.
Turned? Bowe Berghdal, pictured in a video released by the Taliban in December 2010, has been accused of deserting the US Army and allying himself with the enemy
In letters and emails, he expressed doubts to his parents, saying in one email: ‘I feel ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.’
Bowe also wrote of his ‘disgust’ at seeing an Afghan child run over by a military vehicle: ‘We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armoured trucks.’
The suggestion that he may have ‘switched sides’ was further mooted in an article in Rolling Stone magazine, written with the cooperation of Bowe’s family, which revealed he ‘slipped off’ from his outpost carrying water, a knife, a digital camera and his diary.
In a final email to his parents, Bowe wrote a line that has since been interpreted by many as a ‘farewell note’. It said: ‘I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting. The US Army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is an army of liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies.’
The article also quoted other soldiers saying Bowe had talked about walking to Pakistan if his deployment proved ‘lame’ and had asked a superior officer if he would get into trouble if he took his weapon if he left base.
And two years ago, Taliban commander Haji Nadeem claimed Bowe was providing training to the insurgents on bomb-making techniques and teaching them how to lay ambushes. But Nadeem said the Taliban later felt ‘tricked’ when Bowe escaped – only to be recaptured.
Though Bowe was clearly an idealistic young man who, before he joined the Army, thought nothing of travelling the world at a moment’s notice, the allegations have been stoutly denied by the US Department of Defence and President Obama has said his release is of ‘the highest priority’.
Support: Jani and Bob Bergdahl refuse to believe that their son is a deserter and hope he will soon be released from captivity
Certainly few in his home town of Hailey believe them. A picturesque community of just 7,000 people nestled in the stunning Sawtooth Mountains, its inhabitants are delighted Bowe may be coming home and that the Bergdahls’ ‘four years of agony’ will end.
Bowe was a private when he was captured in South Eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, but has been promoted twice in his absence by the US Army and now holds the rank of sergeant. He is being held by the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated terrorist group, in Pakistan’s NorthWest Frontier tribal area.
Five videos have been released of him over the past four years. Just ten days ago, his family received a letter from him via the Red Cross.
At Zaney’s Cafe, where Bowe worked as a barista before he enlisted with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, owner Sue Martin has posted pictures of him on the cafe wall. ‘
Jani wouldn’t tell me too much about the contents of the letter,’ she said. ‘The family has to be very careful what they say as negotiations are at a critical point. We are waiting every day for the news that Bowe is on his way home.
‘But she did say that some of the letter was clearly scripted by the Taliban, though other parts were ‘‘pure Bowe’’ and it gave her real hope that he is doing well both mentally and physically.
‘He is the forgotten victim of this war.
‘Here in Hailey, we’ve never forgotten him but, at times, it has felt like he’s been forgotten by the rest of the world.
‘Most people I speak to have no idea there is still a lone American prisoner- of-war. It’s shameful this story is not known around the globe.’
Leanne Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahls’ 40-acre ranch and has known the soldier all his life, said: ‘Bowe would never have deserted. He was always an idealistic and naive young man.
‘I believe he was befriended by an Afghan soldier and then lured away from his troop and that’s when the Taliban grabbed him.
‘Apparently they jumped on him while he was going to the toilet.
‘I think his main crime is being an idealist. He tried to join the French Foreign Legion before he joined the US Army. He gave up on that when he learned he’d have to give up his US passport. He was always a dreamer, someone who thought he could make a difference. He’s many things but he’s not a traitor.
‘I think he joined the army because he believed he could make a difference to the lives of people over there. And then he got there and saw what war was really like. He’s a small-town kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
Meanwhile, Mr Bergdahl has told friends he is ‘staying up around the clock’ to email with men he believes are legitimate Taliban negotiators.
Friends say the strain he is under is evident. ‘Bob has gone native,’ one says. ‘He’s grown that ridiculous beard, speaks Pashto, stays up all night on Afghan time. Sometimes I worry he’s lost his mind. But he’s a dad who wants his kid back and who wouldn’t do the same?
‘My main worry is what happens when Bowe comes home? Bob’s whole life for four years has been this campaign. I worry that the Bowe who comes home to Hailey won’t be the same Bowe who left here and then the family will be torn apart.’
For now, Hailey continues to anxiously await the return of its missing son. Banners of support hang in store windows alongside the stars and stripes. Yellow ribbons are tied to every tree along Main Street and locals wear yellow rubber wristbands with Bowe’s name on them.
As Jani Bergdahl’s friend Sue Martin says: ‘We are hopeful we’re in the home straight. After so many years, we just want Bowe home. Then there will be a homecoming party to end all parties.’
At the family’s modest ranch home, his mother Jani, 53, said: ‘I have new optimism and real hope for the first time in a long time.
‘My husband will go to Doha, he will sit down and talk with the Taliban. We’ll do whatever it takes. We have gone through years of agony. Now, finally, we are very optimistic that he’ll be home soon.’